Dirty linen might seem like a unsavory topic in a novel set in Regency England, but when the linen belongs to the Bennet family from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, it makes for good reading. Jo Baker's Longbourn is told from the perspective of the downstairs staff: two house maids, the housekeeper, her butler husband, and a mysterious, newly-hired footman. By modern standards this might seem like a excessive number of servants, but in Nineteenth Century England, five menstruating daughters, not to mention a gaggle of Gardner cousins foisted on the Bennet's for weeks at a time, make for a mountain of laundry for the two beleaguered maids. One day a week is dedicated to it, and even the family pitches in: they eat a cold buffet because the maids aren't available to serve in the dining room. The servants sell their labor for the security of a warm bed - sometimes only a pallet on the floor - and regular meals, but they enact their revenge in startling ways. When Mr. Hill discovers a bit of food stuck to the tines of a fork, he gives it some spit - and a shine on his vest - before placing on the table. The servants depend on each other for kindness and understanding - even sex -although that shared comfort doesn't preclude an occasional boink with one of their "betters." The airing of the family's metaphorical dirty laundry is front and center in this alternate reality.
Baker envisions a plausible back story for the Bennet family, a kind of foreshadowing for Lydia's hushed-up fall from grace, and a rationale for the Bennets' troubled marriage. She basks in the ironic implication of Mr. Bennet's efforts to save his licentious daughter's reputation while remaining indifferent to needs of his illicit offspring. Most of Austen's characters look less attractive when they're viewed through the eyes of their servants. To them Lizzy is known more for her soiled petticoats (all those muddy walks!) than her sparkling wit, and Mrs. Bennet isn't just a hysterical blabber mouth, she is also addicted to mild-altering substances for the treatment of her infamous nerves. Two notable exceptions are Mr. Collins, the sycophantic cousin, and Mary Bennet, the pedantic middle sister. Both are portrayed sympathetically which caused me to feel some guilt for laughing at Austen's relentless barbs at their expense.
Critics have often chastised Austen for ignoring the turbulence of her times. Baker fills that void by bringing the Napoleonic Wars vividly to life. The flogging of a soldier isn't just a juicy bit of gossip to be chewed on by the gentry, for Baker it becomes a powerful symbol for the hardships and injustices endured by the serving class, whose survival is completely dependent on the whim of those they serve. We can thank her for imagining fully-realized lives for them, and for sharing her vision without detracting from the magic of Austen's masterpiece. Add a star if you are very familiar with Pride and Prejudice and not afraid to think outside the box.